Is there a new golden age for copper coming to British Columbia?

Highland Valley Copper mine operation owned by Teck Resources. (Image courtesy of Teck Resources)

Even those who don’t follow mining or invest in it could probably tell you that a global energy transition will mean the world is going to need a lot more copper.

B.C. is Canada’s largest copper producer, with six operating mines and a couple of dozen projects at the early or late exploration stage that could become new mines one day.

So is copper golden in BC?

Judging by presentations made last week at the annual Association for Mineral Exploration Roundup conference, at a panel called “The B.C. Copper Advantage,” the answer is “Yes, but.”

Craig Hart, director of the mineral deposit research unit at the University of British Columbia, pointed to the demand for copper that will result from the low-carbon economy – more electric cars, wind turbines and generally more electrification.

“When there are regular conflicts about resource projects in Canada, we lack certainty and some projects aren’t able to begin the fundamental work to advance their projects.”

“All of that is going to require a lot more copper, and our feeling is that British Columbia is probably as well-poised as any jurisdiction on the planet to take advantage of and exploit the opportunity,” Hart said.

But Michael Doggett, mining consultant and adjunct professor at Queen’s University’s geological sciences and geological engineering department, said a historical review of exploration and mining for copper in B.C. over the past 45 years suggests the sector in B.C. is a mature industry that seems poised for steady-state maintenance, not bonanza-style growth.

“Whatever the reasons, it seems like we get ups and downs in this business, but we seem to hit a ceiling here of about 350,000 tonnes,” Doggett said. “The business of B.C. copper, I think, is going to continue to make a significant contribution to the economy in the province.

“I think B.C. is going to continue to attract sufficient investment to sustain the sector. And overall, subject to unpredictable market and technology changes, we should really anticipate that the B.C. copper business is going to look more or less in the future like it does now.”

So what does that mean for the junior exploration sector?

Given the timelines involved in taking a mine from prospecting to exploration to development and production, it means continued prospecting and exploration in B.C. for greenfield projects is needed to keep potential mines in the pipeline, although it’s a pipeline that moves very slowly.

“On average, a greenfield program will take 15 years to deliver a discovery, and that discovery can take another 10 to 15 years to permit and develop,” said Chris Welton, Americas region exploration director for Rio Tinto PLC (NYSE:RIO), which spends more than half its exploration budget on copper. “So our portfolio today will be delivering metals and minerals to the market in 15 to 25 years’ time.”

Doggett said the long time spans are a hallmark of the business – “and that’s not going to change.”

“That’s not unique to B.C.,” he said. “That happens everywhere. If you look at the global copper business, on average it takes between 20 and 25 years to move a discovery into production.”

Copper is B.C.’s second most valuable export from mining – metallurgical coal being the most valuable commodity. B.C. exported $205 million worth of copper in 2017, according to BC Stats.

But production and exploration spending goes up and down with demand and prices. Spending on exploration for copper in B.C. was $50 million in 1973, Doggett said, and only $20 million in 2001. It peaked at $200 million in 2012 – around the time copper prices began a downward slide. In total, about $2.6 billion was spent on prospecting and exploration for copper in B.C. since the 1970s.

The long-term fundamentals for copper are strong, especially given the demand that will come from electric vehicles and renewable energy. But prices have dipped in recent months, due to slower demand in China, which accounts for half of the world’s copper consumption.

As a result, Imperial Metals (TSX:III) plans to shut down its Mount Polley copper mine and sell off some or all of its assets. That would leave Imperial Metals with just one operating copper mine. Its Huckleberry mine is also in care and maintenance.

As Doggett’s historical charting illustrated, copper mines shutting down and reopening – sometimes many years later – is par for the course.

“This idea of closing and reopening, revisiting, building on sunk costs, is a phenomenon that is pretty common in our business,” Doggett said.

B.C.’s geology is such that the copper porphyries hold low-grade copper deposits, compared with those of some other copper-producing regions, like Chile. But these deposits also contain either gold or molybdenum, which help make the mines more economic.

While copper is widely distributed in B.C., much of the exploration focus in recent years has been in the northwest corner of the province in an area known as the Golden Triangle. That has been deliberate, as the provincial government has been trying to focus exploration and mining efforts there.

Junior exploration companies have carried out the work. Majors like Rio Tinto have not yet picked up any copper projects in B.C.

“We would like to be, but we just need to find the right project,” Welton said. “My exploration manager bugs me almost every time that I speak to him. And he reminds me that, to balance our portfolio in Canada, he wants a B.C. porphyry.”

Welton noted that there are still uncertainties in Canada that hinder investment in exploration and mine development.

“Our business depends on certainty and land access,” he said. “When there are regular conflicts about resource projects in Canada, we lack certainty and some projects aren’t able to begin the fundamental work to advance their projects.

“Unfortunately, it often seems like these conflicts are becoming more frequent, and we need to find a way out of these dilemmas.”